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Colombia

One Country, Several Wars

Text and photos by Vinicius Souza and Maria Eugênia Sá, CartaCapital, São Paulo, Brazil, May 9, 2005

At the gory front of the fight between the government and the guerrillas of Colombia, an important battle in the United States’ War on Drugs, the quotidian violence rises from poverty and the government’s actions and omissions.

“Why didn’t you ask your relatives to come for you at the bus station? Aren’t they aware you’re in town?”

The cab driver’s questions and his swift communications in code by radio made the two Brazilian journalists who had just arrived in Cali, Colombia, recall Gabriel García Márquez’ News of a Kidnapping. The three-year long kidnapping of the candidate to the president’s office, Ingrid Bettancourt, and other stories about abductions in that country also came to their minds.

“Sure they do! We’ve just arrived earlier to catch them unawares.”

It is the very first answer which comes to the mind of somebody intent in making his voice sound confident, memorizing the itinerary by unknown streets and yet planning some improbable reaction with an old Swiss Army pocket-knife. The fear and paranoia with which Colombians live day after day has just conquered two more victims.

They found out afterwards that somebody had written down the address incorrectly (1B Street instead of 18th Street), and that the driver’s codes were probably for his own safety by informing the central office of his whereabouts and the place his passengers had asked him to take them.

The cab comes to a halt in front of a middle-class condominium guarded by high iron gates and fences; at the entrance, two pizza-delivery boys are waiting for the residents to come down to collect their dinner outside the gates. More congenial than his Brazilian workmates, the mix of doorman and security guard who comes out from the sentry box informs the journalists the address is wrong. He uses his own phone to call the telephone number written on the paper, talks to his colleague doorman at the right building, corrects the street number, calls a “trustworthy” taxi company and asks for another cab.

It is estimated that Colombia produces 70 percent to 80 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the world. There are no totally reliable figures about the actual amount of the money generated by the dope traffic in Colombia, but that “business” is accountable for the greatest portion of the dollars coming into the country (the next greatest are, in the following incredible order, the money sent in by Colombian families living in the United States, coffee and petroleum). However, only $2 to $4 billion out of the $100 billion spent in cocaine nowadays in the United States reenter in Colombia, due to the fact that the price of the powder in Colombia is 40 times smaller than in the United States. In global terms, the narcotics traffic sets over $300 billion in motion a year, the equivalent to 40 percent of the G.N.P. in Brazil or three times the Colombian G.N.P.

Cali, one the most violent cities in Colombia, with 90 to 100 murders for each 100,000 inhabitants and famous for the cocaine cartel which competed with Pablo Escobar’s in the 1990’s, is a perfect portrait of urban life in the country. The wealthy and middle-class citizens take refuge behind private militias in luxury condos, and shop at the sophisticated stores of the Chipichape Commerce Center. The lower middle-class citizens and the extremely poor ones are segregated and live on the violent outskirts of town or in slums downtown. But fear is everywhere to be felt and seen.

The extreme kindness of the Colombian people conflicts with the safety paranoia. At the general stores and Internet cafes on the stone paved downtown streets with their colonial buildings, the employees keep a smile on their faces even behind iron security bars or bulletproof windowpanes. Metal detectors can be found not only at bank entrances, but also in government offices and university buildings.

While the police stop bikers and drivers of vehicles with tinted windows in the streets, yuppies are searched by private security guards at the entrances of sophisticated pubs at happy hour. The salsa music can be heard almost everywhere, in beershops, dance clubs, shantytowns, taxi radios …

As in any other place in the world, there are more dangerous zones and times, and the victim’s profile is very clear. Women, for instance, represent less than 10 percent of the murder victims, and 70 percent of the dead are aged 15 to 34. For those outside this profile who are not related with the traffic or the criminality, the real chance of becoming a murder victim is very small.

However, being acquainted with statistics is not enough to reassure the journalist and teacher José Vicente Arismendi, who was in charge of the regional news broadcast of the Telepacífico Network for 10 years. In a pleasant early evening, he refuses to leave his car and walk the sidewalks in search of a beershop. He prefers to keep driving until he finds some place with a safe parking lot. He calls his wife on the phone, tells her where he is and assures her he won’t take long. During the next hour and a half we would call her two more times, repeating that he was all right.

Arismendi justifies his behavior blaming the earthquake that had occurred three nights ago [Nov. 14] and weakened the structure of some buildings in town, but with no fatal victims:

“I’m not used to going out evenings anymore. We’ve got two small kids who panicked with the earthquake that happened on Sunday. And you’ve got also to think on the urban violence!”

Next morning the journalists took another taxi to Aguablanca, an uptown district where 550,000 out of the 2 million Cali inhabitants live. The majority of the neighborhood residents are Blacks or half-breeds, with a lot of internally displaced people (desplazados) and high criminality rates. Streets full of holes, masonry houses mixed with mud wall and metal sheet roof huts. It’s ten in the morning and the driver sweats profusely, probably due to the damp and oppressive hot weather typical of that region, and is growing uneasier by the second. He cannot find the address among those numbered streets; in Colombia, the streets don’t have names.

“If I had known it was this far, I wouldn’t have come. I’m not used to drive through these streets. This neighborhood is too dangerous!”

The cab driver stops four times to ask for directions but he seems not to rely on the answers, even when they are identical to one another. He also won’t allow his passengers to get out from the cab to search for the Médecins Sans Frontières (M.S.F.) office on foot:

“You would be mugged before reaching the corner!”

When he finally finds the right spot, he is so nervous that he turns the taximeter off and asks for the first fare that comes to his mind, certainly much smaller than the right price for a more than one hour trip like that. All he wants is to come back downtown as fast as he can.

The Integral Rehabilitation and Violence Prevention Program that M.S.F. has been developing for six years in Aguablanca is going through a decisive moment. On the one hand, the entity itself is being forced to decrease its investments and focus its operations in typical medical emergency projects (due to decreased donations from countries that are now redirecting their budgets to the “war against terror”). On the other hand, the Colombian government needs to take over successful social and health projects to justify the money it receives from organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank, the I.M.F, the World Bank, and from the Colombia Plan.

In December 2004 the Rehabilitation Program, a novelty in the country, which provided physiotherapy, social, medical, and psychological assistance to over 2,700 victims of urban violence, was transferred to a “social company” related to the Cali government, the E.S.E. Oriente. Justine Simons, MSF coordinator, explains:

“We were aware that we would have to find out some alternative funding source for the program or transfer it to the municipality responsibility. We know things won’t be the same, but we’ve sown the seed and are now providing the government with the opportunity of showing what it is able to do.”

During a short visit to the Marroquín Health Center, at the very core of Aguablanca, the victim’s profile and the violent social context become very clear. The victims are poor youngsters hit by random gunshots or injured during holdups, in beershop fights, disputes for women, gang wars … An explosive mixture of extreme poverty, loss of moral values, alcohol, drugs and easily obtained weapons. Nothing to cause surprise to a Brazilian citizen.

A very good example of such a situation is Julio César Tavares, 24, a thief since he was 13-years-old and who started killing when he was 16, when he gathered a group of youngsters to take revenge for the murder of a friend and took part in the slaughter of 18 of his rivals in the neighborhood. He welcomes the journalists at his simple home in the Floralia neighborhood, close to Aguablanca, where he lives with his young son and his wife.

In the best tradition of Colombian hospitality, Tavares offers the journalists mango juice and popcorn, and proudly shows off the symbols of the Colombian youth status: a genuine T-shirt and a pair of Puma sneakers, which certainly had not cost him less than $100 to $150.

“The paramilitary have tried to hire me as a gunman, offering me 900,000 pesos [about $380] for each killing; but I didn’t accept the job because afterwards you can’t get out of it and I’d rather be independent. To kill somebody you can’t think twice, you’ve got to be cold, just draw your gun and bang-bang. I don’t feel anything when I’m hired to kill somebody; except when it is by revenge, then I do enjoy it, it is a pleasure to me.”

Ironically, Tavares himself was once assisted by the M.S.F. Rehabilitation Program after having been beaten almost to death by two strangers who stole from him the insignificant amount of 2,000 pesos less than $1). But that event happened more than a year ago and now he is back to his criminal life.

In Bogota, the violence and paranoia is quite different. At an altitude of 2,700 meters, the average temperature is 14ºC to 20ºC, and the architecture is inspired on the English homes in neighborhoods like Teusaquillo, where the headquarters of the several N.G.Os that operate in Colombia are located. In certain aspects, the Colombian capital looks quite like an European city: the streets are clean, there are many trees and lampposts, and the middle-class teenagers play basketball at the square open courts until late evening.

Around 93rd Street, sophisticated beershops and cafes welcome the youngsters of the elite, who can calmly walk around showing off their griffe clothes. (Hugo Boss, Levi’s, Adidas...) The dominant music style is not the salsa, but rock-and-roll sung in English. In a huge McDonald’s restaurant, the “well born” children can safely celebrate their birthdays, under the protection of the smiling host clown Ronald McDonald.

Downtown, where the streets are packed with colonial style historical buildings, you can find the theatres, museums, show-halls and beershops where the intellectuals gather. Although, differently of what occurs at the wealthy neighborhoods, the downtown security force does not wear elegant suits or communicate by discreet radio sets. What you most commonly see are military uniforms and heavy assault rifles manufactured in the United States. Raids, searches and arrests by police happen all the time.

According to the coordinator of the disarmament program of the Bogota municipality, Father Alírio López Aguilera, the strategy helped to reduce the murder rates by over 35 percent from 1998 to 2003.

In his cozy office at the City Hall building, right in the central area of the city, Father Aguilera welcomes the journalists wearing an elegant black silk shirt closed up to the collar, in a cassock style, and indicates data in his documents with a Montblanc pen:

“The program of weapons rendering in exchange for bonuses, which can be traded by food and clothes, collected over 4,000 shotguns, 30,000 ammunition cartridges, hundreds of explosive devices and thousands of toy guns since 1996. However, our main achievement has been a change in the people’s way of thinking. During an investigation performed in 1994, 70 percent of the citizens we’ve interviewed answered it was important to have a gun for self-defense, and today that rate decreased to 30 percent.”

Nobody refutes the legitimacy of that initiative or its positive effect; however, the data and methodologies are controversial. Antonio da Silva, a Brazilian economist who has worked for international humanitarian organizations since 1996 and until last October acted as the M.S.F. general coordinator in Cali, says that the statistics on violence in Bogota have been “made-up”:

“The Bogota municipality excluded from the city official map the violent district of Ciudad Bolívar, where over 1 million people in a situation of extreme poverty live.”

Friar Omar Fernández, executive director of the Interfranciscan Commission for Justice, Peace and Reverence to Creation is more incisive:

“During the last 10 years, the governments in the several levels implemented an almost fascist political-economical project, drawing back social conquests and individual rights and favoring a ‘peace for the peacemakers’, that is, the dominant high middle-class, and displacing the population in general to the outskirts neighborhoods with no social infra-structure.”

Friar Omar goes on:

“Not to mention the action of the paramilitary and informants paid by the government to detect “leftists” in the poor quarters. It’s the new “social cleaning” of the so-called Democratic Security Policy, which kills or arrests the communities leaders. All you’ve got to do is visit Ciudad Bolívar and see it by yourself.”

However, reaching Ciudad Bolívar is not easy at all. It is a two-hour bus trip through scenery in which houses and buildings get poorer and poorer and streets more full of holes with each kilometer.

At the foot of the mountain the landscape is very similar to Rocinha Shantytown, in Rio de Janeiro. Right at the beginning of the climb, dozens of children with nothing else to do play at the cement paved court built by the municipality.

The majority of them do not go to school because their mothers cannot afford the “matriculation fee” of $10 to $20 per child.

For the families in Altos de Cazucá, one of the poorest spots in Ciudad Bolívar, have an average of four children, the investment is not feasible and the mothers have to choose between providing their kids with school or food. Luz Helena Rodrigues is 24-years-old and has two daughters; her sister-in-law Julia Juliete, 19, is also the mother of two little girls. Out of the four children, only Luz’ eldest daughter, 8, attends school. The children’s fathers and grandfather are in jail, charged with collaborating with the guerillas; and their mothers have nobody to look after them or money to get an ID card which could allow them to get a legally registered job as factory workers or maids in wealthy homes.

Yes, it seems unbelievable, but in addition to having to pay for public school the Colombian mothers would have to spend a lot of money to get their IDs, for it is mandatory that the cards contain also one’s blood type and Rh factor, tests that can only be performed by private clinical practices at an average price equivalent to $20. The government makes difficult the population’s access to basic rights, generating an exclusion cycle that leads to increased violence.

Despite how it may look in the news, over 85 percent of the murders in Colombia have nothing to do with the guerrilla-paramilitary-Army conflict. And more: 80 percent of the killings in Cali are not related to the international narcotics traffic.

North-American money for the Colombia Plan ($3 billion in the last three years), President Álvaro Uribe’s propaganda against those he calls “narcoterrorists”, his support of the War Against Terror, and the so-called Democratic Security Policy may all have succeeded in reducing the coca crops area (according to official data, from 180,000 to 65,000 hectares), but they are miles away from bringing safety to the population.

As in Brazil, the factors that actually fuel violence in Colombia are much more related to matters like extreme poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, lack of opportunities and low rates of school attendance. According to data provided by the World Bank, in Colombia the poverty rate is 67 percent and the extreme poverty rate is 26 percent.

The Lawless Hill

If there is a place in Cali that is entitled to be paranoid about security, it is the Siloé neighborhood. Situated on a hill with a privileged view of the city it is where the demobilized M-19 guerillas settled once their group became a political party in the early 1990’s.

Taxis do not go up the few paved streets, and there are no bus lines either. The only way to access Siloé is in private cars (which would be too much in evidence, since strangers are not welcome), or on old open jitney jeeps that take passengers to a sole spot within the neighborhood and then back downtown. On a Friday, at noon, there is no one to be seen in the streets. Even the medical center, with its more than 2 meters high barbed-wire fences, closes its doors before 2:00 p.m. for the doctors are afraid of staying there later than that time.

According to Alfredo Bedolha, a former M-19 guerilla, the public power has not done much to change such a situation:

“There was a police officer called Milton, who in the late 90’s killed over 100 young transgressors in Siloé. And his actions didn’t reduce violence one bit. Ours is still the most violent neighborhood in town.”

Not even the Franciscans’ house, with their poverty vows, has been spared. In one of the four burglar attacks he’s been subject to, Friar Luiz Eduardo Medina was not killed only because the burglar’s gun failed twice before he decided to use it as a club and made a nine-stitch slash on another friar’s scalp:

“I’m very frustrated by this situation, for our community here doesn’t respond to any of our initiatives. The residents are all locked up inside their homes, afraid of being killed or assaulted. I’ve already lost track of the many drama, guitar and other courses we’ve offered in the Juvenile Center with no inscriptions at all.”

A young man about 20-years-old walks past the friar, concealing a pocketknife in his own pocket and nodding in response to the religious man’s “good afternoon”.

“That boy is one of those who robbed our home,” says the friar. “He walks past me every day and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

“Here the Rule of Law Is Terrorist” — Human Rights Activists Live Under Death Threats

Yes, in Colombia there are high rates of common violence and a lot of paranoia about the guerillas and terrorism among the population in general. However, for the unionists, opposition politicians and N.G.O. members, the greatest source of fear are the paramilitary and the government sectors which relate human rights to communist guerillas and divide the world into left and right, Cold War style.

Almost all of the Communist Party’s leaders were assassinated. The few who remain walk around surrounded by bodyguards. The majority of the community leaders and human rights activists are also subject to death threats, and many of them carry radio sets provided by the police so that they can be warned about new threats to their lives.

The journalists have visited nine N.G.O.s in Colombia, among them the Médecins Sans Frontières, the Red Cross International Committee, Justice and Life, and the Universitarian Christian Association, all of which complain about their relationship with the government, although not all of them dare to take a position of direct opposition — which could jeopardize their activities. Lilia Solano, director of Justice and Life, lets out:

“It is very difficult for the N.G.O.s to search for supported peace ways when the rule of law is a terrorist government, like here in Colombia and in the United States, where the people are manipulated, the data are manipulated, the votes are controlled and a war policy is guaranteed. More important than peace for peace itself is to understand the causes of the social conflict: the fight for the land and against unemployment, injustice and the economical model of exclusion.”

Translated by Arlete Dialetachi.

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